Justice Salihu Modibbo Alfa Belgore, GCON, is our ICON for the week

Justice SMA Belgore

For rising from the lowest rung of the bench—Associate Magistrate— in July 1964 to the most coveted position of Chief Justice of Nigeria, on June 12, 2006, spending 43 straight years on the bench without stain; for being a former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) with the shortest but eventful tenure of office spanning only seven months during which the Supreme Court ably led by him rolled out developmental policies and gave radical decisions in civil, criminal and constitutional cases that injected sanity into the polity including its verdict in the case of Adeleke Vs Oyo State House of Assembly which reinstated the impeached Oyo State Governor, Rasheed Adewolu Ladoja in 2006;  for his immense contributions to the development of the nation’s jurisprudence through the deployment of his talents as a polyglot, versatility and huge knowledge of the rich and peculiar culture of various settlements in different geo-political zones of the country which rubbed off on the quality of his judgments on diverse chieftaincy and intertribal disputes in the country and for being one of the most decorated achievers in the country, Justice Salihu Modibbo Alfa Belgore, GCON, is our ICON for the week

Born on January 17, 1937 into the Belgore royal family of Ilorin, Kwara State by a great jurist, Alkali Yusuf Belgore and Hajia Aishatu Belgore, the young Belgore grew up in the palace when his great uncle Abdulkadir Dan Bawa, who ruled from 1919-1959 was the Emir of Ilorin.

Although his parents attempted to register him for his elementary education at the age of five, he could not be admitted by Okesuna Elementary School until 1945 when his hands could touch his ears at the age of seven. He moved from Okesuna Elementary School to Ilorin Middle School where he was between 1949 and 1951. Upon completion of his primary and middle school education in Ilorin, he was admitted to Ilesha Grammar School in 1952 on the advice of the famed educationalist, Reverend Ransome-Kuti. At the time, Mr. J. A. Akinyemi, the father of Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, former Foreign Affairs Minister was the principal of the school. Young Belgore later recalled that the original plan was for him to attend Kings College, Lagos for his secondary school education but that the Emir objected because two of his uncles that attended the school got distracted. He left the school in 1956.

Upon completion of his secondary school education at Ile Grams, there arose a dispute over the course he was planning to study in the university: The young Belgore and his childhood friend, Umaru Sanda, both wanted to study Medicine but the family insisted he must study to be a lawyer. Hear him: “My ambition was not to study Law. Not that I hated Law but I planned to study Medicine. We argued for two years before a peacemaker who happened to be Dr. Abdulkadir Oniyangi, (who later in life retired as Secretary to Kwara State Government), dissuaded Sanda Umar and I from studying medicine. I did well in all the science subjects in school certificates and Maths but they insisted I must study Law and their insistence forced me to move to one village called Molete,” he said. He finally gave in to pressure to study Law after further persuasion by the then District Head in Ilorin, who was his cousin in the family chain. The decision turned up to be a life-changer as he left for England in 1960, where he enrolled at the University of London for his Law degree. He immediately returned to Nigeria to attend the three months course at the Nigerian Law School and enrolled as Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria with Abdullahi Ibrahim (SAN), Shettima Adamu Mukthar Liberty, a former Attorney General of Borno State and Hon. Justice Sunday Akintan , JSC retired, among  others. Specifically, he was called to both the English and Nigerian Bar in 1964.

Unlike many judges that privately practised Law at the Bar before they were elevated to the Bench, SMA Belgore rose through the ranks of judicial hierarchy by joining the bench as Associate Magistrate in July 1964 and by September same year he had started sitting alone as Magistrate. He eventually became Chief Magistrate and Chief Registrar in Kaduna. He was elected President of the Magistrates’ Association of Nigeria in 1971 and later an Acting High Court Judge of the North-Central and Kwara State in July 1973 as well as that of the North-Western and Kano State in September that same year. In January 1974, he equally became an acting Judge of Benue, Plateau and North- Eastern States.

Initially he was not too disposed to the idea of being appointed a judge when he was offered. The then Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon signed off his employment letter as a judge in 1974 when he was confirmed as High Court Judge and served in Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto, before he was appointed as the first indigenous Chief Judge of Plateau State on 1st March 1977.

He was elevated to the Federal Court of Appeal two years later when he was posted to Enugu. But in 1986 while in Benin, he rose to the pinnacle of his career when he was elevated to the Supreme Court, the country’s apex court in 1987. He was on the bench for the next 21 years until his appointment as the Chief Justice of Nigeria in June 2006 by the former President Olusegun Obasanjo. The position conferred on him the chairmanship of the National Judicial Council, the Federal Judicial Service Commission and the National Judicial Institute.

While he was in the Supreme Court, he was on the judicial panels that delivered many landmark cases including the often cited cases of Savannah Bank Limited vs Pan Atlantic and Transport Agencies Ltd; Savannah Bank vs Ajilo and Tukur vs Gongola. Some of his landmark imprints include Impeachment Procedure Rules, increased conferees of the Silk Robe Procedure, Discipline of Erring Judges, Justice Sector Reforms which include simplification of Rules of Courts and Unification of Criminal Justice Administration and Rules of Evidence. He retired after only seven months on January 17, 2007 to make his tenure the shortest for a chief justice of Nigeria and to end his 43 years of meritorious public service.

Justice Belgore also served in various capacities on diverse committees and associations while he was on the bench. For instance, in 1971, he became the President of the Magistrates’ Association of Nigeria during which period he led the Nigerian Delegates of the Association to the 1972 Conference of Commonwealth Magistrates in Bermuda as well as that of Malaysia 1975. He was appointed Chairman of the Governing Council of the National Archives in 1992 which council he said should be the repository of our history but unfortunately was not made to function for many years. Between 1997 and 1998, he served as the Chairman, Body of Benchers. As a jurist who had on several occasions clamoured and agitated for the complete overhaul of our laws, especially Criminal Law and Procedure and  generally procedural approach to courts, he was elected in 2000, the Chairman of Technical Committee, Africa Conference on Law and Justice Development. He was also a Governor, National Judicial Institute, Abuja. He was given Honorary Award of Doctor of Law, Honoris Causa) University of Abuja, Gwagwalada, LITT (Honoris Causa), Al Hikmah University. In recognition of his meritorious service to the nation, his Lordship was conferred with the National Award of Commander of the Order of Niger (CON) and later the Grand Commander of Order of Niger (GCON). He is a Life Bencher of the Nigerian Body of Benchers as well as the Inner Temple of London.

‘According to Justice Belgore, “ Ever since I retired, I have been living my life quietly. I have my happiness which is the best thing. The best way to have happiness is to fear God and do things correctly,” he said.

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